FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Driver error is likely the cause of a crash involving a school bus and an empty freight train that killed two people and injured 12 more in northeastern North Dakota, police said Tuesday.
Evidence at the scene indicates the bus driver braked but didn't stop in time to prevent the crash Monday afternoon near Larimore, Highway Patrol Lt. Troy Hischer said. The bus driver and a 17-year-old girl were killed.
"There's no indication that the brakes didn't work properly. The driver was on the brakes — you could see that he was trying to stop," Hischer said.
"We believe it was driver error at this point — he became complacent, or something else was going on," he said.
Authorities were examining the bus and interviewing passengers to determine if the driver was distracted, Hischer said.
Hischer said the Larimore Public School District bus was heading north on a gravel, county road when it was struck by a westbound BNSF Railway freight train at a crossing with no crossing arms.
The intersection was marked with a crossbuck, which is a white "X'' with the words "railroad" on one half and "crossing" on the other. Busses are required by law to stop at those signs. The post with the crossbuck also has a stop sign, Hischer said.
He said the train struck the bus on the passenger side, near the doors. The bus driver and the 17-year-old student were ejected from the vehicle and killed.
School district superintendent Roger Abbe identified the bus driver as Max Danner, 62, who taught vocational agriculture and headed the Future Farmers of America program at the school. The Highway Patrol planned to release the name of the student who died Tuesday afternoon.
Seven girls between the ages of 5 and 15 and five boys between 6 and 16 were injured, Hischer said. Some of them suffered broken bones and three were in "very serious condition," he said.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said BNSF has sent investigators to the scene. McBeth said the train was not carrying any cargo and that neither of the two crew members on the train was injured.
It's the second fatal accident at the rail crossing in six years. Darvin Friederich was killed there in October 2009 when his SUV was struck by a freight train. His wife, Gayle, said she has lobbied the state Department of Transportation to put crossing guards at the intersection.
"They said there's not enough traffic here to render crossings," she told KFGO radio. "They put those stop signs up two weeks after my husband was killed."
Counselors from about 30 schools along with clergymen were on hand to support students at classes Tuesday, Abbe said.
"We may be rivals on the basketball court or football field, but it when it comes to the tough times, we're all there to help each other out," he said.
Hischer said he has responded to numerous fatal crashes in his 21 years in law enforcement but was still shaken by Monday's incident in Larimore, about 100 miles north of Fargo.
"It's difficult," he said. "I have four children. It definitely hits home, when you see children (injured) like that."
Nicholson reported from Bismarck, North Dakota.